Table of Contents
Confessions of Saint Augustine: The desire to be someone
Of the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth years of his age, passed at Carthage, when, having completed his course of studies, he is caught in the snares of a licentious passion, and falls into the errors of the Manichæans.
Chapter 1. Deluded by an Insane Love, He, Though Foul and Dishonorable, Desires to Be Thought Elegant and Urbane.
1. To Carthage I came, where a cauldron of unholy loves bubbled up all around me. I loved not as yet, yet I loved to love; and with a hidden want, I abhorred myself that I wanted not. I searched about for something to love, in love with loving, and hating security, and a way not beset with snares. For within me I had a dearth of that inward food, Yourself, my God, though that dearth caused me no hunger; but I remained without all desire for incorruptible food, not because I was already filled thereby, but the more empty I was the more I loathed it. For this reason, my soul was far from well, and full of ulcers, it miserably cast itself forth, craving to be excited by contact with objects of sense. Yet, had these no soul, they would not surely inspire love. To love and to be loved was sweet to me, and all the more when I succeeded in enjoying the person I loved. I befouled, therefore, the spring of friendship with the filth of concupiscence, and I dimmed its luster with the hell of lustfulness; and yet, foul and dishonorable as I was, I craved, through an excess of vanity, to be thought elegant and urbane. I fell precipitately, then, into the love in which I longed to be ensnared. My God, my mercy, with how much bitterness did You, out of Your infinite goodness, besprinkle for me that sweetness! For I was both beloved, and secretly arrived at the bond of enjoying; and was joyfully bound with troublesome ties, that I might be scourged with the burning iron rods of jealousy, suspicion, fear, anger, and strife.
Chapter 2. In Public Spectacles He is Moved by an Empty Compassion. He is Attacked by a Troublesome Spiritual Disease.
2. Stage-plays also drew me away, full of representations of my miseries and of fuel to my fire. Why does man like to be made sad when viewing doleful and tragical scenes, which yet he himself would by no means suffer? And yet he wishes, as a spectator, to experience from them a sense of grief, and in this very grief his pleasure consists. What is this but wretched insanity? For a man is more affected with these actions, the less free he is from such affections. Howsoever, when he suffers in his own person, it is the custom to style it misery but when he compassionates others, then it is styled mercy. But what kind of mercy is it that arises from fictitious and scenic passions? The hearer is not expected to relieve, but merely invited to grieve; and the more he grieves, the more he applauds the actor of these fictions. And if the misfortunes of the characters (whether of olden times or merely imaginary) be so represented as not to touch the feelings of the spectator, he goes away disgusted and censorious; but if his feelings be touched, he sits it out attentively, and sheds tears of joy.
3. Are sorrows, then, also loved? Surely all men desire to rejoice? Or, as man wishes to be miserable, is he, nevertheless, glad to be merciful, which, because it cannot exist without passion, for this cause alone are passions loved? This also is from that vein of friendship. But where does it go? Where does it flow? Wherefore runs it into that torrent of pitch, seething forth those huge tides of loathsome lusts into which it is changed and transformed, being of its own will cast away and corrupted from its celestial clearness? Shall, then, mercy be repudiated? By no means. Let us, therefore, love sorrows sometimes. But beware of uncleanness, O my soul, under the protection of my God, the God of our fathers, who is to be praised and exalted above all forever, beware of uncleanness. For I have not now ceased to have compassion; but then in the theatres I sympathized with lovers when they sinfully enjoyed one another, although this was done fictitiously in the play. And when they lost one another, I grieved with them, as if pitying them, and yet had delight in both. But now-a-days I feel much more pity for him that delights in his wickedness, than for him who is counted as enduring hardships by failing to obtain some pernicious pleasure, and the loss of some miserable felicity. This, surely, is the truer mercy, but grief has no delight in it. For though he that condoles with the unhappy be approved for his office of charity, yet would he who had real compassion rather there were nothing for him to grieve about. For if goodwill be ill-willed (which it cannot), then can he who is truly and sincerely commiserating wish that there should be some unhappy ones, that he might commiserate them. Some grief may then be justified, none loved. For thus do You, O Lord God, who loves souls far more purely than do we, and art more incorruptibly compassionate, although You are wounded by no sorrow. And who is sufficient for these things? 2 Corinthians 2:16
4. But I, wretched one, then loved to grieve, and sought out what to grieve at, as when, in another man’s misery, though reigned and counterfeited, that delivery of the actor best pleased me, and attracted me the most powerfully, which moved me to tears. What marvel was it that an unhappy sheep, straying from Your flock, and impatient of Your care, I became infected with a foul disease? And hence came my love of griefs — not such as should probe me too deeply, for I loved not to suffer such things as I loved to look upon, but such as, when hearing their fictions, should lightly affect the surface; upon which, like as with poisoned nails, followed burning, swelling, putrefaction, and horrible corruption. Such was my life! But was it life, O my God?
Chapter 3. Not Even When at Church Does He Suppress His Desires. In the School of Rhetoric He Abhors the Acts of the Subverters.
5. And Your faithful mercy hovered over me afar. Upon what unseemly iniquities did I wear myself out, following a sacrilegious curiosity, that, having deserted You, it might drag me into the treacherous abyss, and to the beguiling obedience of devils, unto whom I immolated my wicked deeds, and in all which You scourged me! I dared, even while Your solemn rites were being celebrated within the walls of Your church, to desire, and to plan a business sufficient to procure me the fruits of death; for which You chastised me with grievous punishments, but nothing in comparison with my fault, O Thou my greatest mercy, my God, my refuge from those terrible hurts, among which I wandered with presumptuous neck, receding farther from You, loving my own ways, and not Yours — loving a vagrant liberty.
6. Those studies, also, which were accounted honorable, were directed towards the courts of law; to excel in which, the more crafty I was, the more I should be praised. Such is the blindness of men, that they even glory in their blindness. And now I was head in the School of Rhetoric, whereat I rejoiced proudly, and became inflated with arrogance, though more sedate, O Lord, as You know, and altogether removed from the subvertings of those subverters (for this stupid and diabolical name was held to be the very brand of gallantry) among whom I lived, with an impudent shamefacedness that I was not even as they were. And with them I was, and at times I was delighted with their friendship whose acts I ever abhorred, that is, their subverting, wherewith they insolently attacked the modesty of strangers, which they disturbed by uncalled for jeers, gratifying thereby their mischievous mirth. Nothing can more nearly resemble the actions of devils than these. By what name, therefore, could they be more truly called than subverters?— being themselves subverted first, and altogether perverted — being secretly mocked at and seduced by the deceiving spirits, in what they themselves delight to jeer at and deceive others.
Chapter 4. In the Nineteenth Year of His Age (His Father Having Died Two Years Before) He is Led by the Hortensius Of Cicero to Philosophy, To God, and a Better Mode of Thinking.
7. Among such as these, at that unstable period of my life, I studied books of eloquence, wherein I was eager to be eminent from a damnable and inflated purpose, even a delight in human vanity. In the ordinary course of study, I lighted upon a certain book of Cicero, whose language, though not his heart, almost all admire. This book of his contains an exhortation to philosophy and is called Hortensius. This book, in truth, changed my affections, and turned my prayers to Yourself, O Lord, and made me have other hopes and desires. Worthless suddenly became every vain hope to me; and, with an incredible warmth of heart, I yearned for an immortality of wisdom, and began now to arise Luke 15:18 that I might return to You. Not, then, to improve my language — which I appeared to be purchasing with my mother’s means, in that my nineteenth year, my father having died two years before — not to improve my language did I have recourse to that book; nor did it persuade me by its style, but its matter.
8. How ardent was I then, my God, how ardent to fly from earthly things to You! Nor did I know how You would deal with me. For with You is wisdom. In Greek the love of wisdom is called philosophy, with which that book inflamed me. There be some who seduce through philosophy, under a great, and alluring, and honorable name coloring and adorning their own errors. And almost all who in that and former times were such, are in that book censured and pointed out. There is also disclosed that most salutary admonition of Your Spirit, by Your good and pious servant: Beware lest any man spoil you through philosophy and vain deceit, after the tradition of men, after the rudiments of the world, and not after Christ: for in Him dwells all the fullness of the Godhead bodily. Colossians 2:8-9 And since at that time (as Thou, O Light of my heart, know) the words of the apostle were unknown to me, I was delighted with that exhortation, in so far only as I was thereby stimulated, and enkindled, and inflamed to love, seek, obtain, hold, and embrace, not this or that sect, but wisdom itself, whatever it were; and this alone checked me thus ardent, that the name of Christ was not in it. For this name, according to Your mercy, O Lord, this name of my Saviour Your Son, had my tender heart piously drunk in, deeply treasured even with my mother’s milk; and whatsoever was without that name, though never so erudite, polished, and truthful, took not complete hold of me.
The desire to be someone
We all want to be someone. We might want to make a name for ourselves. We want to be known for something. These desires can be large, like being someone famous. They can be less well known, like being a good mother or father, a good wife or husband. But there is the important aspect of our lives that God has created each of us with the desire to become ourselves.
And we are not like everyone else. Each of us is unique. But the Confessions of Saint Augustine in this chapter reveals something that is quite true about everyone in life. When we are young, we desire to be old. And when we are old, we desire to be young. And the young adult Saint Augustine wants to be seen as a sophisticated adult.
When we first set out, it can be the case that we think we need to be someone who is in the image of what other people think we should be. And we can eschew wisdom in the name of making our own mark. We can want what is shallow but glitzy, passing on those things that wisdom has proven true. Saint Augustine is no different.
It is important to note the emptiness that characterized Augustine during this period, because he was satisfied with the superficial, and yet inward, where it mattered, the superficial was what it was. It was empty.
And yet, fortunately, it was in thinking about thinking, in great philosophical thought that there begins to emerge for Augustine something that begins to open a new way of seeing, something not superficial, but rather, something that begins the quest for wisdom.
Thoughts to Ponder
What might you identify as something that you desired only to discover it failed to satisfy?
As you think about things, has there been a moment where you discovered a way of thinking that changed how you saw things? How?
What provides you fulfillment at this point in your life?